Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

At the Movies Blog
The Band in happier times.

The Band in happier times.

I have a love/hate relationship with Robbie Robertson. I love his group The Band. I dislike his solo records (although Storyville had a few good songs). I love listening to him tell stories in interviews, in his folksy way, but I hate that when I talked to him once in the early ‘90s, he flat out lied and was rude to me. I jokingly asked him about The Doors movie being made, because they’re my favorite group and he once said in a Rolling Stone interview that they were horrible, and nobody would remember them in five years. He also mentioned a specific Oedipal song The Band did that he claimed was so much better than The Doors tune “The End.” Yet it was that Doors song that starts off the movie Apocalypse Now! 

He was claiming he never said those things, and I told him it’s in the Rolling Stone book of best interviews, and…that was the extent of our conversation. Joe Benson (of radio station KLOS), snapped at me, “He said he didn’t say that. We’re moving on.”

So, it makes me wonder…while watching this documentary…I’m hearing his version of the story on The Band. And on the subject of Rolling Stone, it’s like what their movie critic David Fear said about this film — that it should be called “Robbie Robertson on The Band.”

It’s like he has a score to settle, and he’s the only one alive that’s doing the talking (of the five band members, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel are no longer with us). But because I love The Band, listening to Robertson share some stories I wasn’t familiar with, and hearing their great tunes, was fun.

The producers for this include Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese (who has used Robertson to do many film scores). 

I thought about the job Howard did with the Pavarotti documentary last year, and wished this had a bit more of an edge to it. For example, I loved hearing so much from Robertson’s wife and how they met, and her take on the evolution of the band (and the many car accidents). Yet I had to Google later to find out they’re divorced. Director Daniel Roher probably didn’t want to tick off Robertson. But instead, we have to listen to a horrible song Robertson is playing in the studio (Once Were Brothers), instead of giving us some juicy stuff. Although there is a brief segment where Robertson addresses the allegations of him making more money on royalties (he was the main songwriter). But perhaps Roher could have shown us more of the childhoods of the other four band members. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been as interesting as Robertson’s (one side of the family — Mohawk descent; the other side, Jewish gangsters). 

Most people that know rock, know that The Band got their start (and name) as Bob Dylan’s “band.” They might not know, it wasn’t touring to support some record like Blood on the Tracks or Highway 61. It was after the folk singer went electric, and they were often booed by the crowds. It got so bad that the drummer quit. They had to talk him back into the fold when they were forming their own unit — The Band

It was great to see and hear Ronnie Hawkins, an underrated rockabilly act. We learn of how a 15-year-old Robertson started writing songs for that band, after an opening stint. I never knew that Helm was actually the drummer of the Hawks. The two quickly became thick as thieves. 

There are a few archival interviews, but we get some new clips from talking heads (no David Byrne ref. intended) like Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Van Morrison, David Geffen, Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone magazine), Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. I love the fact that the Boss is always eager to talk with filmmakers doing projects on musicians that he respects (40 Feet From Stardom comes to mind). 

It was fun to hear Clapton say he went to hang out with the band secretly hoping they’d ask him to join and when he asked them, “Do you wanna jam?” 

He was met with Robertson telling him, “We don’t…jam!”

Early in the documentary, I liked how the montages were done while the group talked about how Chuck Berry and Little Richard were early influences. 

There was a solid segment on the Delta Blues.

Now, I read the autobiography on Bill Graham (the concert promoter, not the evangelist), and I don’t remember hearing the story Robertson told about the time Graham hired a hypnotist to get him onto stage with a fever (and stage fright, both of which sound like Band songs)…all for their first concert at the legendary Fillmore. 

And many of the stories were fun. Nothing like hearing Robertson auditioning to be a part of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, taking a bus from Canada to the south, and surprisingly getting the gig. He asks, “How much are you paying me to join the band?”

Anybody that knows a musician in a band knows…that’s a question that will elicit big laughs, unless you’re already signed to a label or are a big national touring act. Hawkins tells him that he won’t make much, but that thing most musicians jokingly say is the reason they formed a band — “You’ll get lots of p****.”

The band all lived in a house in Woodstock, the way a few bands did (Arthur Lee and Love, Aerosmith, and The Grateful Dead come to mind). They wrote songs, recorded, hung out with Dylan, and partied. They were a true family of brothers. Yet they had one of the ugliest and messiest break-ups, and since that’s barely touched upon (other than drug use talked about)…that’s a tad disappointing. 

This is still worth seeing if you’re a music lover.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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